By Gerald Peary
Screenwriter-director Todd Phillips knows well what he is doing in the calculated way he escalates the bloodshed in Joker.
Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Screening at Somerville Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinemas, and other movie houses around New England.
I avoid comic book film adaptations like malaria, but the Joker improbably winning the Golden Lion at Venice led me to check it out. How could a solo movie about a Batman villain be prize-worthy against more than a dozen art house favorites?
Well, the Venice jury is vindicated. Minus a couple of slips, Joker is a first-rate movie superbly conceived and directed by Todd Phillips and with a sublime performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck (aka The Joker). Phoenix slithers into the mind and skin of his lowly, creepy, psychotic character in a conscious homage to the classic manic impersonations of Robert DeNiro as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin. Arthur channels Travis’s coming alive and into manhood through weaponry and Rupert’s smothering obsession with celebrity. The connections of these three movies can’t be clearer, as De Niro himself is along for the ride in Joker, playing to the hilt a fatuous late-night TV host.
There’s one more film that’s essential in the Joker mix, seen by few: Lynne Ramsay’s 2017 You Were Never Really Here (Arts Fuse review). It’s Joaquin Phoenix again, as, in Joker, a low-life in NYC living with and caring for his mother but, venturing outside, transforming into a serial killer. It doesn’t take away from Joker’s achievement to note that a stripped-down version of the story has already been done, and recently.
So what’s the narrative of Joker? Arthur resides somewhere in Gotham City (cartoonist Bob Kane’s Big Apple) in a dilapidated apartment building, where he dotes on his pale, frail, mostly bed-ridden mom, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). When she manages to crawl to the couch, it’s to watch her favorite late night talk show, The Murray Franklin Show; and it’s De Niro as the star of it all sitting smugly behind his desk chatting with the guests. Mrs. Fleck has one more obsession: her seeming romance four decades ago with her rich boss, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Wayne, who could be Arthur’s real father, is, at this very moment proclaiming a run for mayor to clean up Gotham.
That’s one thing Wayne and Arthur agree on, but with very different solutions. Gotham/NYC has gone to pot. It’s exactly the encrazed cesspool which Travis Bickle so wanted to clean up, to make his city great again. Will it improve the environs in Joker by electing a reformist hizzoner? Or, in Arthur’s case, is there a more blunt, crude way to clear the lethal streets?
It’s time to mention Arthur’s debilitating condition. A variant on Tourette’s: the poor guy can’t help laughing out loud like a jackass whenever he gets tense. Which is often. The laugh is off-putting, alienating, and, among other failures, keeps him from making human connections. As with the sputtering, stuttering Norman Bates, the only woman in his life is dear Mother.
Can his laughter be harnessed, utilized? Clueless Arthur, after a lifetime of TV watching, has ambitions to be a stand-up comedian, even though his mom says, ingenuously, “Aren’t comedians supposed to be funny?” To support himself, he takes temporary jobs in a clown’s whiteface and ditsy outfit, singing ha-ha songs for crippled children, carrying advertising signs in the streets dolled up as a sort of Emmett Kelly.
For the first third of Joker, we, the audience, are totally on Arthur’s side. That’s filmmaker Phillips’s strategy: this miserable, disabled shlimazel, so caring for his mother, so enamored of little children, is getting a raw deal everywhere. His boss unfairly wants to fire him, and he’s beaten to a pulp by young hoodlums when he chases them when they steal one of his signs.
Then Arthur gets a gun.
Just when in time does Joker occur anyway? The story is set in some vague retro pocket, a comic book 1970s, Taxi Driver-land, Johnny Carson-land, but packed with anachronisms: Sinatra’s 1966 “That’s Life” blasting on the soundtrack, a fancy theatre in which the beautifully coiffed audience laugh their asses off watching Charlie Chaplin roller skating in 1936’s Modern Times. Arthur’s sluggish 1960s tape recorder. Most important: Joker is pre-computer. Although there’s a resemblance, Arthur cannot be pegged as today’s fan boy sending out violent tweets and texts while residing with his parents.
Is it real or a fantasy? Is everything that happens in Arthur’s demented imagination? In Todd Phillips’s 2009 classic, The Hangover, his protagonists wake up in Los Angles to a baby in their room and a tiger. Are they still dreaming? Or when they end up at the home of Mike Tyson? Phillips continues walking this pop-surrealist line in Joker. Every time you think the world has exploded, Arthur pops awake. So none of that happened? Or some of it did? Or all of it did? And if it’s all in Arthur’s head, does that matter? Does it negate all that we’ve seen? Does the horror of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari just disappear when we learn it’s all the vision of a mad man? Maybe the mad man is the seer who sees the world clearly, like Arthur.
Finally, violence. Are there circumstances when Arthur rightly should take the law into his own hands, Travis Bickle style?
There have been who have attacked Joker as socially irresponsible for, in an era of mass killings, placing us in such intimate relationship with a murder, and, ultimately, with a host of murderers. There are others that argue that it’s just a movie, for God’s sake. And it’s not movies that are responsible for killings any more than guns are. My position? Joker is socially irresponsible at times, but with purpose.
Screenwriter-director Phillips knows well what he is doing in the calculated way he escalates the bloodshed. So Arthur has this gun. And his first shootings are — this is important — almost ones we leftist pacifists in the audience can agree on. He’s attacked on a subway by three suited, haughty, arrogant, Wall Street yuppies, who knock him to the floor and kick him and kick him. We hate them! And it’s definitely self-defense when he, who has never shot anyone before, pulls out his gun and blasts them.
But here’s where we begin to lose Arthur. Phillips shows that Arthur is extremely energized by the killing, pumped up, and so aroused as a man that, seemingly, he can knock on the door of the sexy woman down the hall, make love to her, and emerge with a doting girlfriend. And Arthur’s killings after? Each one gets uglier and has less motivation. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the crowds will be with him as he shoots away. I think audiences will be nauseated, revolted. Which is good.
BUT, and this contradicts everything I’ve said in the last paragraph. My artsy, transgressive self shamefully approves of, at the climax of the film, a clown revolt in the streets. It’s neither right nor left but unadulterated nihilism, the closest I can remember in cinema to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, his revolutionary belief that “essential” theater is like the plague. Or in this case (with Steven Sondheim’s accompanying music), here come the clowns!
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.